Note by the Amanuensis: Around Winter Solstice 2008, we were in the early throes of the global financial collapse that persecuted many people in the many ways over the next decade or so.
At Winter Solstice 2023, we are in the early throes of a global war. We might as well call it that, since every part of the world is impacted by the brutal wars going on every where else. And since climate collapse likely will stir more and more disaster and death.
In December 2008, Mom (“Senior Witch,” as Walhydra lovingly nicknamed her) was still self-sufficient enough to be in assisted living. Mid-stage Alzheimer’s dementia left her still able to communicate and to understand, though she had come “unstuck in time,” to borrow a phrase about Kurt Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim.1
Pretty much everything else in this Yule post from December 2008 is self-explanatory. Or might be.
First sliver of New Wolf Moon, after Winter Solstice.
Walhydra realizes that “blood” is not a word folks usually associate with Yule. We usually think of lights and worship and music and family…and scurry and worry and spending too much and eating too much….
Even so, on Yuletide morning, Walhydra marked her black front door with a splash of blood-red ribbon.
It was as if she were making certain that the angel of midwinter darkness would pass over their home and allow the first born light of the New Year to shine upon them.
Not that Walhydra is troubled by darkness this year, as she was so profoundly last year.
Unlike then, Senior Witch now lives just fifteen minutes away, in a comfortable, competently staffed assisted living facility. Walhydra and Hubby Jim see her now as often as they did when the three of them still lived in South Carolina.
And Walhydra has been able to resume adult conversations with the brilliant woman who still peeks out with determination through the increasing childlikeness of Alzheimer’s.
This winter’s darkness has been filled with cozy slumber and cuddling with Hubby Jim, rather than with the neurochemistry-driven despair and panic of a year ago.
At first, back between Samhain and Thanksgiving, Walhydra was scolding herself for neglecting completely the dawn ritual which kept her marginally sane last winter: the floor exercises and tai chi, the zazen, the devotional reading and prayer.
As the days grew shorter—”As I had to start going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark!” Walhydra points out—it became increasingly tempting to just stay in bed, snuggling with JimJim until the last possible moment.
It was quite a challenge to her “dark Lutheran” sense of duty. “I ought to be disciplining myself to get up on time,” she would say, using Senior Witch’s favorite Lutheran preacher’s kid term of self-abuse.
Eventually, though, Walhydra was rescued by a long-time online friend Igraine, who assured her that playing spoons was a perfectly marvelous way to get through the winter months.
The bleak midwinter
In any event, why is Walhydra speaking about blood in relation to Yule?
Isn’t the season of Chris-Hanuk-Kwanzaa (as Jim calls it) about good cheer and overly sweet desserts and candles and garishly colored, blinking lights on houses and yards….
“…and little girls dancing to that cutesy, overwrought Russian ballet,” Walhydra adds, never having understood the obligatory annual repetition of this confection, which didn’t appeal to her little boy self.
For years, Walhydra has felt that the whole winter solstice business is exploited and trivialized by modern American culture. Part of what a friend of hers calls the “santa-claus-ization” of sacred days and heroes.
Before the West invented the so-called infrastructure, with its piped-in water and gas and its wired-in electricity—and especially before cities allowed surplus people to huddle together for warmth and shared agricultural stores—Yule was not necessarily a friendly, cozy season.
It still isn’t for the impoverished majority of the world.
Herne & childbirth
At midwinter, the hope of the clan was that the hunters would drag back enough bloody meat from the forest to replace the dwindling grains and fruits and nuts of the harvest.
That was the red on the cloak of Father Yule. The blood.
The other blood of the season is woman’s blood. No babe is born without blood and the danger of death.
Yet the Christ Child, the Son of the New Year, is always presented to us in sanitized swaddling clothes—as if born from stirrups and epidural anesthesia in a modern hospital, swabbed antiseptically and laid clean on the new mother’s breast.
Survival of communitas 2
This year, though, with Christmas coming in the midst of a global economic crash, it’s the first time in decades that Walhydra has sensed a collective awareness of the finiteness of life. Of the importance of nurturing and conserving what we already have, rather than recklessly consuming the future.
We may be starting to remember that the ancient Yule was about survival.
Maybe our family—at least the hardiest of us—will survive until spring.
Maybe if we hunker down, lay on some fat and sleep a lot, relying on our brutal men to plod home with meat and our ragged women to live through childbirth…maybe enough of us will survive to go on.
Prosperous Westerners who pay attention to the Bible tend to gloss over the bits about blood.
The steps of the altar in the Temple were gushing with it.
The whole Middle World, Semite and Aryan alike—Philistine, Jew, Greek and Roman—relied on blood sacrifice to convince themselves that their gods would remember them in the worst of times.
In a similar way, those of us brought up in or under the sway of the Church are taught to make a big deal about Christ’s blood as sacrifice to a god who demands such.
Mercy, not sacrifice
Walhydra doesn’t believe that the blood at Yule is about sacrifice, at least not about sacrifice as payment for sin.
It is about birth and food.
Yes, it is about death. About Herne’s sacrifice of some of his children to feed others of his children. But not death demanded by a god.
Walhydra takes Yeshua, the Christ Child, at his word when he quotes Hosea 6:6:
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
So where is Walhydra going with this sideways rant about the season? She isn’t really sure. Putting that blood-red ribbon on her door got her to thinking, and that thinking is labyrinthine.
For example, she realizes that there is a third kind of blood at Yule, the blood which flows through us from generation to generation.
Unstuck in time
Lately, Senior Witch has been telling…and retelling…stories about her own parents. Walhydra has learned more about the character of her maternal grandparents in the past few months than she had during the past five decades.
In part this is Senior Witch’s rehearsal for her own death, a process of letting go of the present and moving back into childhood.
Yet Senior Witch has a fiercely penetrating Sagittarian’s perspective on her own life and the lives of her parents, husbands and children. She has always sought to string the bow of the past with animal intention and to aim it toward the future with spiritual wisdom.
Despite mixing up names and dates and sequences of events, Senior Witch can tell the hearts of her parents with a sharp yet compassionate precision. Walhydra realizes that she can do the same with her children.
It’s daunting yet inspiring.
Also daunting is the word from Walhydra’s father, the Lutheran preacher, at the dark of the moon. He called yesterday to say that his last sister had died. He alone survives his parents and five siblings.
Walhydra felt odd, longing to give reassurance to this man who has almost never dared ask for it, who has always done his sideways Cancerian scuttle to protect himself from self-disclosure.
Listening to her Dad’s Parkinsonian mutter, Walhydra strains to sense what he is telling her, what he feels, what he longs for.
She gives him the most affirming um-hum’s and uh-huh’s she can…without knowing the content of most of this once eloquent preacher’s sentences. She just wants him to know how much she loves him.
As best she can tell, that message gets through—and is returned in kind.
Wolf Moon. Sliver of New Moon. First week after Solstice.
And so it goes.3
Thank the Divine One for the blood and the sun.
Images & Notes:
- “Red Yule bow,” photographer unknown.
- “Sun light in the passage at Newgrange viewed from the entrance,” from Winter Solstice sunrise at Newgrange – 19th December 2004, Knowth.com.
- “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” is the opening sentence of the Vonneguts 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.
- Communitas is explained by James Carse in his book, The Religious Case Against Belief (2008). See my discussion in “Weeds (Part II).”
- Narrator’s refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five.